Ages before the terms Native American or Indian were necessary, the tribes were spread all over the Americas. Before any white man set foot on this land, it was settled by the forefathers of bands we now call Sioux, or Cherokee, or Iroquois.
For centuries, the American Indian developed its culture and legacy without disturbance. And that history is captivating.
From Mayan and Incan ruins, from the mounds left in the central and southern regions of what’s currently the U.S. we have learned quite a bit. It’s a tale of beautiful craft work and deep spirituality. Archaeologists have unearthed highly advanced structures and public works.
While there was unavoidable tribal conflict, that was simply a slight blemish in the experience of our forebears. They were at peace with this beautiful continent and deeply plugged into nature.
The European Settler Arrives
When European leaders dispatched the first vessels in our direction, the objective was to explore new resources – but the quality of weather and the bounty of everything from timber to wildlife soon changed their tune. As those leaders heard back from their explorers, the drive to colonize spread like wildfire.
The English, French and Spanish raced to carve up the “New World” by sending over poorly prepared colonists as fast as they could. At the outset, they skirmished with the alarmed Indians of America’s eastern seaboard. But that shortly gave way to trade, because the Europeans who arrived here understood their survival was doubtful with no native help.
Thus followed years of relative peace as the settlers got themselves established on American soil. But the drive to push inland came soon after. Kings and queens from thousands of miles away were impatient to find even more resources, and some colonists came for independence and adventure.
They required more space. And so began the process of driving the American Indian out of the way.
It took the form of cash payments, barter, and notoriously, treaties which were nearly uniformly ignored once the Indians were forced away from the territory in question.
The U.S. government’s policies towards Native Americans in the second half of the nineteenth century were influenced by the desire to expand westward into areas occupied by these Native American tribes. By the 1850s almost all Native American tribes, roughly 360,000 in number, lived to the west of the Mississippi River. These American Indians, some from the Northwestern and Southeastern territories, were confined to Indian Territory located in present day Oklahoma, while the Kiowa and Comanche Native American tribes shared the area of the Southern Plains.
The Sioux, Crows and Blackfeet dominated the Northern Plains. These Native American groups met misfortune as the constant stream of European immigrants into northeastern American cities delivered a stream of immigrants into the western lands already inhabited by these various groups of Indians.
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The early nineteenth century of the United States was marked by its continual expansion to the Mississippi River. However, due to the Gadsden purchase, that lead to U.S. control of the borderlands of southern New Mexico and Arizona as well as the authority over Oregon country, Texas and California; America’s expansion would not end there. Between 1830 and 1860 the U.S. pretty much doubled the amount of territory within its control.
These territorial gains coincided with the arrival of troves of European and Asian immigrants who wished to join the surge of American settlers heading west. This, combined with the discovery of gold in 1849, presented attractive opportunities for those willing to make the extended trip westward. Consequently, with the military’s protection and the U.S. government’s assistance, many settlers started establishing their homesteads in the Great Plains and other areas of the Native American group-inhabited West.
Native American Tribes
Native American Policy can be defined as the regulations and procedures developed and adapted in the United States to summarize the relationship between Native American tribes and the federal government. When the United States initially became a sovereign nation, it adopted the European policies towards these local peoples, but over two centuries the U.S. adapted its very own widely varying regulations regarding the evolving perspectives and necessities of Native American supervision.
In 1824, in order to administer the U.S. government’s Native American policies, Congress made a new agency within the War Department called the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which worked directly with the U.S. Army to enforce their policies. At times the federal government recognized the Indians as self-governing, independent political communities with different cultural identities; however, at other times the government attempted to force the Native American tribes to abandon their cultural identity, surrender their land and assimilate into the American traditions.
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With the steady flow of settlers in to Indian controlled land, Eastern newspapers printed sensationalized reports of cruel native tribes committing massive massacres of hundreds of white travelers. Although some settlers lost their lives to American Indian attacks, this was in no way the norm; in fact, Native American tribes often helped settlers cross the Plains. Not only did the American Indians peddle wild game and other supplies to travelers, but they acted as guides and messengers between wagon trains as well. Despite the friendly natures of the American Indians, settlers still anticipated the possibility of an attack.
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To quiet these fears, in 1851 the U.S. government kept a conference with several local Indian tribes and established the Treaty of Fort Laramie. Within this treaty, each Native American tribe consented to a bounded territory, allowed the government to construct roadways and forts in this territory and agreed to never assault settlers; in return the federal government agreed to honor the boundaries of each tribe’s territory and make total annual payments to the Indians. The Native American tribes responded quietly to the treaty; in fact the Cheyenne, Sioux, Crow, Arapaho, Assinibione, Mandan, Gros Ventre and Arikara tribes, who signed the treaty, even agreed to end the hostilities between their tribes in order to accept the conditions of the treaty.
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This peaceful agreement between the U.S. government and the Native American tribes didn’t stand long. After hearing tales of fertile acreage and great mineral wealth in the West, the government soon broke their assurances established in the Treat of Fort Laramie by allowing thousands of non-Indians to flood into the region. With so many newcomers moving west, the federal government established a plan of confining Native Americans to reservations, limited areas of acreage within a group’s territory “” earmarked exclusively for Indian use, in order to give more territory for “” non-Indian settlers.
In a series of new treaties the U.S. government made Native Americans to abandon their land and migrate to reservations in exchange for protection from attacks by white settlers. In addition, the Indians were allocated a yearly stipend that would include money in addition to food, animals, household goods and agricultural equipment. These reservations were established in an effort to clear the way for heightened U.S. expansion and involvement in the West, as well as to keep the Native Americans isolated from the whites in order to decrease the potential for conflict.
History of the Plains Indians
These deals had many problems. Most of all many of the native people didn’t entirely grasp the document that they were confirming or the conditions within it; moreover, the treaties did not consider the cultural norms of the Native Americans. In addition to this, the government institutions accountable for applying these policies were weighed down with poor management and corruption. In fact many treaty conditions were never implemented.
The U.S. government rarely fulfilled their side of the deals even when the Native Americans relocated quietly to their reservations. Unethical bureau agents sometimes sold off the supplies that were intended for the Indians on reservations to non-Indians. Additionally, as settlers demanded more land in the West, the government frequently decreased the size of Indian reservations. By this time, many of the Native American peoples were dissatisfied with the treaties and angered by settlers’ persistent demands for land.
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Angered by the government’s dishonorable and unjust policies, some Native American tribes, including bands of Cheyennes, Arapahos, Comanches and Sioux, fought back. As they struggled to maintain their lands and their tribes’ survival, over a thousand skirmishes and battles broke out in the West between 1861 and 1891. In an effort to compel Native Americans onto the reservations and to end the violence, the U.S. government reacted to these skirmishes with significant military operations. Obviously the U.S. government’s Indian policies required an adjustment.
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Native American policy changed dramatically after the Civil War. Reformers felt that the scheme of driving Native Americans on to reservations was too severe while industrialists, who were concerned with their land and resources, viewed assimilation, the cultural absorption of the American Indians into “white America” to be the lone permanent strategy for ensuring Native American survival. In 1871 the federal government approved a critical law proclaiming that the United States would no longer treat Native American tribes as sovereign entities.
This law signaled a drastic shift in the government’s working relationship with the native peoples – Congress now regarded the Native Americans, not as nations outside of its jurisdiction, but as wards of the government. By making Native Americans wards of the U.S. government, Congress presumed that it would be better to make the policy of assimilation a widely acknowledged part of the cultural mainstream of America.
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Many U.S. government officials considered assimilation as the most practical solution to what they deemed “the Indian problem,” and the only permanent method of guaranteeing U.S. interests in the West and the survival of the American Indians. In order to accomplish this, the government pushed Native Americans to relocate out of their traditional dwellings, move into wooden homes and turn into farmers.
The federal government passed laws that forced Native Americans to quit their traditional appearance and way of life. Some laws outlawed customary spiritual practices while others instructed Indian men to cut their long locks. Agents on more than two-thirds of American Indian reservations established tribunals to enforce federal polices that often banned traditional ethnic and spiritual practices.
To accelerate the assimilation course, the government started Indian facilities that attempted to quickly and vigorously Americanize Indian kids. According to the founder of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the schools were designed to “kill the Indian and save the man.” To be able to accomplish this objective, the schools required pupils to speak only English, wear proper American clothing and to switch their Indian names with more “American” ones. These new regulations helped bring Native Americans nearer to the end of their established tribal identity and the start of their life as citizens under the absolute control of the U.S. government.
Native American Treaties with the United States
In 1887, Congress passed the General Allotment Act, the most important component of the U.S. government’s assimilation platform, which was written to “civilize” American Indians by teaching them to become farmers. In order to accomplish this, Congress planned to increase non-public ownership of Indian property by splitting up reservations, which were collectively held, and offering each family their own parcel of land.
Additionally, by forcing the Native Americans onto limited plots, western developers and settlers could purchase the remaining acreage. The General Allotment Act, also known as the Dawes Act, required that the Indian lands be surveyed and each family be provided with an allotment of between 80 and 160 acres, while unmarried adults received between 40 to 80 acres; the rest of the land was to be sold. Congress thought that the Dawes Act would breakup Indian tribes and increase individual enterprise, while reducing the cost of Indian administration and serving up prime land to be purchased by white settlers.
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The Dawes Act proved to be disastrous for the American Indians; over the next generations they existed under policies that outlawed their traditional way of life yet failed to supply the crucial resources to support their businesses and households. Dividing the reservations into smaller parcels of land brought about the significant reduction of Indian-owned land. Within three decades, the tribes had lost over two-thirds of the region that they had controlled before the Dawes Act was enacted in 1887; the majority of the remaining land was sold to white settlers.
Regularly, Native Americans were cheated out of their allotments or were required to sell their land in order to pay bills and provide for their families. Because of that, the Indians were not “Americanized” and were often not able to become self-supporting farmers or ranchers, as the makers of the Act had expected. It also produced resentment among Indians toward the U.S. government, as the allotment practice sometimes destroyed land that was the spiritual and social location of their days.
Native American Culture
Between 1850 and 1900, life for Native Americans changed significantly. Through U.S. government regulations, American Indians were forced from their places of residence as their native lands were parceled out. The Plains, which they had previously roamed alone, were now filled with white settlers.
The Upshot of the Indian Wars
Over these years the Indians have been cheated out of their territory, food and lifestyle, as the federal government’s Indian policies forced them into reservations and tried to “Americanize” them. Many American Indian bands could not survive relocation, cultural destruction and military loss; by 1890 the Native American population was reduced to fewer than 250,000 people. Thanks to generations of discriminatory and dodgy policies implemented by the United States authorities between 1850 and 1900, life for the American Indians was changed forever.
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